Author: Lisa Blansett

What is an Audience?

As part of the “rhetorical situation” most students either pick up on or are explicitly taught, “audience” looms large as the writer tries to predict exactly what will move those who hear or read the work. Other pieces enter the picture, too—purpose, occasion, for example—and this triumvirate serves as a kind of cloud into which the writer uploads words.

In classical rhetoric (or, is that Classical Rhetoric), the role of an audience is addressed in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Plato, Socrates (via Plato of course), and a few “unknown authors.” Although the 3d-audiencequestion of “audience” figures into all these authors’ works, the question of how or even whether one should attend to one’s audience was rather more fractured: For some the audience may be filled with dimwits who hold untrained opinions (doxa), and so the model orator would address them by taking the high road of “knowledge” and truth.  In short, he should teach virtue and deliver wisdom (and therefore enlighten those ignorant souls; Socrates, as the mouthpiece of Plato, never did think much of the hoi polloi: see Plato,Gorgias). For others, namely Aristotle, audience was figured with somewhat more nuance; his taxonomy of audiences includes their demographics (their family and fortune; their age; they are assumed to be men) their emotional state, and their character type (see Book 2 of Rhetoric). Aristotle identifies general types of audiences—the passive spectator, the engaged public, and the judge (hence the branches of rhetoric: deliberative, epideictic, and forensic). Yet Aristotle did not actively link invention or style to the characteristics of the audience, although knowledge of the audience does play a role in the construction of some figures. While Plato seems to argue that one makes an audience by lifting them up to the level of the (non-sophist) rhetorician, Plato describes a rhetor whose role is to provide wisdom and knowledge or to persuade the audience to accept an established norm or truth.

In the millennia since, rhetoric has created the “reasonable man” standard, in which one man stands for the whole audience, and audience itself has come to be generalized as “the consumer.”

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Plagiarism and the Pedagogy of Fear

Students in my classes are able to define plagiarism pretty easily and they understand that plagiarizing comes with consequences. Those same students identify plagiarism under the heading “bad” and its attendant ramifications as catastrophic. Most syllabi include a statement about plagiarism with consequences that range from a failing grade for the essay to failing the class altogether. Beyond syllabi, the University of Connecticut, too, has a statement on the Office of Community Standards page, which includes a brief reference to what “academic misconduct” is, and a lengthy “Appendix A,” that includes an outline of procedures for faculty and details of the protocol for a hearing.



To the University, “academic misconduct is dishonest or unethical academic behavior that includes, but is not limited, to misrepresenting mastery in an academic area (e.g., cheating), failing to properly credit information, research or ideas to their rightful originators or representing such information, research or ideas as your own (e.g., plagiarism)” (Community Standards “Student Code,” Appendix A).

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Bend and ‘Flect

medium_7930358116 (1)  When I think of “reflection” outside the world of composition and rhetoric, I think of light that emanates from a source bouncing off a surface that redirects that light–like sunlight bouncing off car windshields. The light is conceived of as linear, and the relationship between source and surface is geometric, the point of origin different from the point of metaphorical impact, and different, too, from the usual destination, the driver’s side of a car on the highway, making it difficult to see ahead.

The word “reflection” itself doesn’t have appear to have an etymological history that follows the rules of geometry. Where the “flect” in “reflection” comes from is unclear, and while that root is related to an old French word that means “to be brought back,” or from the classical Latin “flectere,” to turn around, “retrace one’s steps, turn back, to turn away (the face, gaze), to turn back, reverse” (OED).

The “flec[t]” of “reflection” means “to bend,” and that’s where “genuflect” connects (as does “connect,” says the OED, as well as “inflect” and “deflect”). The OED editors suggest that a now-obsolete word, “fleche,” may be related, but that word went out of style in about 1420. Still, adding “fleche” to our understanding provides some interesting details to the effects of this bending, including vacillating and wavering.

In the field of rhetoric and composition, reflection has come to mean “writing exercises that require us to position ourselves as the authors of detached rational cognitive and apparently objective self-assessment” (Done & Knowler 850). Students are asked to reflect to assess their process and their work generally, with the goal of developing some metacognition about the work of writing.  Developing some consciousness of the work is a productive goal, but I find that students tend to perform the work of reflection rather than really do much.  I also find that they focus primarily on form, recording, for example, that they need to focus more on stating a thesis early, and then making sure that “everything else” referred back to the thesis.  I don’t seem much about the work of the actual project mentioned at all in a reflection like that.   (For more about the performances of reflection, see Julie Jung’s “Reflective Writing’s Synecdochic Imperative: Process Descriptions Redescribed”).   Continue reading

Legos and Eggs

lego breakfast plate

I’ve been sampling bits of the new 4th edition of Jim Williams’s Preparing to Teach Writing, in part because I wanted to see whether Williams had changed any of his approach (he hasn’t), but mostly because I was thinking about his chapter on the relationship between teaching grammar and improving writing (there is no causative relationship, as he has argued since the mid-80s, so far as I know). I remember being convinced by his argument about that relationship (or, rather, a lack of relationship) when I read it in the first edition, and I still am. When I was in graduate school, we used the first edition of this work while learning the pedagogy of the college writing courses we were teaching. Jim Williams was also Associate Director then, so all that was reinforced frequently face-to-face. Williams advocates enthusiastically for the “process” pedagogy, defined as the familiar trio of planning, drafting, revising, he also told us that in a student-centered classroom the instructor must limit speaking to  10-15 minutes per hour. I agree there, too, so long as we’re talking about writing.  He also strongly advocates for assignments that give students the opportunity to write about things “related to the world outside the classroom” (237). On this particular expedition into the new edition, I lingered with that discussion some and found myself mentally weighing in, which is a sign that I should write a blog about it.

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Contributing to the University

David Bartholomae’s essay “Inventing the University,” is still a foundational text of composition studies, a testament to Bartholomae’s farsightedness and his understanding of student work.  In that piece, he argues that “every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English” (60).  “Invention” serves as the principal metaphor here, a choice Bartholomae uses “to allude to rhetorical invention as it was then being imagined and practiced, particularly invention as ‘pre-writing,’” through which he “wanted to push against the poverty or the anti-intellectualism of much that was driving the ‘process’ movement in the field” (Interview 269).

This invention, then, is not strictly the invention of topos; instead, the evidence of students’ “inventing” is manifest in writer and style: the student writer tries to take on the mantle of the university discourse community and emulate voices and adopt conventions assumed belong in the work of the university.

These conventions alongside the responding figure of the writer remain in place as Bartholomae examines some of the common moves deployed in academe work.  In the context of reading a student essay, Bartholomae rehearses the ironic rendering of a writing prompt delivered by Fred Main,  “While most readers of ____________ have said _______________, a close and careful reading shows that ___________________” (Inventing 75).  The boiler plate structure is familiar to us—the form lets the writer downplay what has been said before in favor of a new reading, which Bartholomae recognizes as  “trading in one set of commonplaces at the expense of another” in order to “win themselves status as members of what is taken to be some more privileged group” (76).   To Bartholomae, this conventional form “took what felt like an existential problem and made it a writing problem, one that could be addressed formally. It wasn’t that I needed something to say; it was that I needed to create a space on the page that called forth a figure who had something to say” (Interview 274).

Bartholomae sees this liberating moment as the road to ethos.  Visible in the form but not addressed in Bartholomae’s response is the role of reading behaviors—close and careful—and on the way the writer interacts with the text.  In Main’s template, the existential question, “who am I as a writer?” is answered in the practices of the writer as reader.  But I think that establishing the writer as writer means examining what happens when the writer begins to craft an essay after the close and careful reading.

That point of reading-to-writing is the space in which students also consider what they have to say. While Bartholomae’s “Inventing” argument foregrounds the struggle to assimilate to “the distinctive register of academic discourse,” I’ve found that students also struggle with what they believe they should say.  They confront another “invention” puzzle:  finding a topic they believe worthy of college-level work.  Continue reading

Sprouting Acorns

On my rather long drive in today, the first day of classes, I noticed  that the leaves have conspired to announce the academic year as they transform from a deep summer green to the yellows and oranges and reds soon to become the mosaics beneath our feet.

Landscape with Trees, Piet Mondrian, 1933
Piet Mondrian, Landscape with Trees, 1933

The University, whose former logo had an oak leaf bearing acorns, welcomes what it conceives of as student seedlings transplanted for our–the faculty’s–cultivation.  It may be supposed that we are in the business of ensuring that “an ook cometh of a litel spyr” (thanks be to Chaucer). What does the University expect of these students?  That’s what every entering student wonders when settling into the first classroom on the first day.  What fruits will I bear–and how many pages does that mean I will write?  When they enter your classroom, they may well believe. . . Continue reading

Term(inal) Papers

One of the topics of conversation around here has been “The Research Paper”; in particular, the question of whether FE instructors are required to assign a research paper.  (You are definitely missing out on some productive conversations if you don’t hang around the FE Triangle [163, 126, and 125]). Many composition instructors are accustomed to assigning a final or penultimate paper that requires substantial research (usually for secondary sources).  You know the drill:  students are to find, evaluate, and use something on the order of five sources as evidence in the service of a cogent argument.  You’re probably also accustomed to the range and overall quality of sources that students include in that “Works Cited.”  While the practice of assigning a research paper is a familiar one, it’s also a practice that comes with a number of problems, not the least of which is the time we would need to spend to teach students how to find useful sources.  In my experience, it takes students more than a couple of “library days” to acquire the wherewithal to root out the best options for their work among the many texts they will find through the library portal and “out there” on the open Internet.  I’d rather spend the time working with students on what’s inside shared texts so that they consider how they might position themselves in relation to the words of others, how to work on the other writers’ words rather than use those words to reiterate their own claims, and how to fashion and follow through on their own lines of thought.  (See my first “Thesis” post on my thoughts about the Law & Order style of essay.) That’s critical thinking to my mind. Continue reading

“Thesis” Goes Viral

In my previous “Anti-Thesis Thesis” post, I offered some reasons why I have moved away from focusing on “thesis” in my classes.  This week, I look at what happens when instructors (broadly conceived) focus on that one-sentence-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph-that-crystalizes-the-argument.

The form of the forensic argument is often reduced synecdochally  to its “thesis statement.” As such, the thesis statement becomes a unit of measurement that indicates how well the rest of the argument will go. “Thesis” is a feature of every college writing rubric I’ve seen; “thesis” is always a separate entry, sometimes with a significant number of points attached to it on a grid. We know where that sort of thesis is typically placed—at the end of an introductory paragraph. And sometimes, when reading quickly, we probably pay much more attention to it (and the topic sentences of the subsequent paragraphs) than we’d like to admit. By assigning a thesis to the rubric, or relying on it as a sign of the quality of what’s to come, we fetishize that sentence. Giving the thesis a place of honor—and other “features” of “good writing”—means that most instructors also want to devote lessons, workshops, and handouts to instruct students on the mysteries of the effective thesis statement. To teach writing, we often break down an essay into constitutive parts and as such the thesis becomes the “quid” of a quid pro quo bid for a good grade.  Or, as a character in one video puts it, “Once you have a thesis. . .you’re well on your way to a good paper” (Ergo 2010).  In this way, the “thesis statement” plays into teaching-as-transaction, in which we give them the tool, and they expect a payment in return for the labor they performed with the tools. Continue reading

What is Parrhesy?

I’ve become interested in the concept of parrhesia or “parrhesy” and its implications for the way we teach writing to undergraduates.  My thoughts are definitely still inchoate here, but I wanted to start thinking more publicly about the direction I’m heading and offer a few of the bits and pieces I’ve found and recorded in my commonplace book (which is more often digital files).   I’m lowbrow enough that the first things that come to my mind when I read “parrhesy” have been “heresy,” and “Parcheesi,” but “parrhesy” is a rhetorical term that means “candour, frankness; outspokenness or boldness of speech” (OED). It’s usually translated as “free speech.”  The term dates back to Euripedes, and in its classical rhetoric iteration, the candor or “truth-telling” had more to do with the speaker than the listener; the speaker’s moral qualities were evidenced in his speech.  In more recent years, the ethos has been reimagined by the likes of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.  In Foucault’s formulation, “free speech” comes with a responsibility, a duty to an other, and the speaker is in fact beholden to the listener precisely because of the risk the speaker takes in her outspokenness. Continue reading

The Anti-Thesis Thesis; or, Why I Don’t Use the Word “Thesis” [Very Often] in Class

I may well be setting myself up for some charges of “composition” heresy: I try to avoid using the word “thesis” when I’m teaching Freshman English.   Although I’ve practiced this erasure for a while, I recently made a public statement about it at our August Orientation and was interested in reactions from several who heard me. I admit I haven’t explored what’s behind some of the reactions I’ve received so far, but I invite those who have something to say about using the word “thesis” to contribute to the conversation in this blog.

In short, these are the reasons I don’t use the word “thesis” in class: Continue reading